The problem with C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – Part 1

When I was in my early twenties, a few years after becoming agnostic, I read C. S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’ for the first time. More accurately, I read part of it; I got bogged down somewhere in Book 2 and never finished it. However, the part I read contained Lewis’s famous moral argument for God, which, as far as I could remember, I’d never previously come across. I have no idea why that was the case – it’s a very famous argument and I’d spent the past several years reading everything I could find in several major libraries on the ‘Why you should/shouldn’t believe in God’ question, so it seems unlikely that I’d managed to miss it completely. Maybe I’d read a poorly-written summary and forgotten it. In any case, there I was, several years into my search for answers on the God question, finally looking at a completely new approach to the subject.

What’s more, it seemed to be the best argument I’d seen so far. With hindsight I think this was not so much a tribute to the power of the argument as an indictment of every other argument I’d ever read on the subject; for the first time that I could remember, my reaction to a pro-theism argument wasn’t “Hold on, surely [obvious objection]?” but “Wow. There’s something to this. I need to think about it.” So I did. I really wanted to know whether Lewis did indeed have something there; whether this actually was the elusive proof of God’s existence for which I’d been searching for so long.

Since I’m here on an atheist blogging platform today, it will probably not be too much of a spoiler if I tell you that it wasn’t. As it’s an important apologetic argument, it seems worth writing about why it wasn’t; as it’s going to be raised in the next chapter of CCCFK, I thought it would be worth doing that now. This (in two parts, because it ended up being longer than I’d anticipated) is my response to Lewis’s moral argument.

First, a quick summary of the argument itself, for anyone who hasn’t heard it. While Lewis put it better than I will, it boils down to this:

  1. We all share and agree on, to at least some extent, a moral code (i.e., a sense of certain actions being right or wrong) and a tacit understanding that other people with whom we interact in normal life are going to share that code with us. (Hence, statements like “You can’t do that, it’s not fair” are appeals to that code; we anticipate that the person we talk to will understand what we mean by ‘fairness’ even if they disagree with our assessment of their action according to that ‘fairness’ standard).
  2. This innate shared understanding is over and above what societal customs could account for (while some of it does vary with society, it’s normally accepted that rules like not killing people or taking their stuff are an actual moral code and not just some kind of weird societal convention).
  3. The only way that humans could have this kind of innate universal understanding would be if it came from some kind of external being who cares about our behaviour and designed us with this innate moral code.

I was impressed. Not only was this an intriguing new line of argument that was challenging me and making me think, but it also made a really nice change for an apologist to be arguing from the premise that unbelievers such as myself did know right from wrong, rather than the erroneous belief that we didn’t. Hah! Take that, all you apologists who’ve tried to tell me I can’t possibly have any idea about morality.

So, food for thought there. Was Lewis right in his belief that only a deity of some kind could have given us this universally shared moral code?

There was, I realised, a big problem with that hypothesis; our shared moral code isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t a list of weird incomprehensible rules with no explanation. Our moral code (at least, the parts of it that we could fairly describe as universal) is, in fact, based on something very obvious; the understanding that other people feel pain and pleasure just as we ourselves do, and that these feelings are important to other people just as they are to us.

We know what it’s like to want to avoid pain, to want to be treated fairly, to want to have the option of pursuing those things that give us happiness and satisfaction in life. We extrapolate from these desires plus our ability to understand that others share these feelings. From this, we grasp that it’s good to avoid inflicting pain on others, to treat all people fairly, to make sure that other people have the option of pursuing happiness and satisfaction in their lives. We understand that it’s wrong to kill or steal or harm people or judge people unjustly, because we get that these things hurt other people just as they would hurt us.

(Having realised this, I also realised that one of the huge flaws in this underlying ability was our tendency to apply this understanding only to those we considered to be part of our in-group. Tribe, country, race, religion, gender, sexuality… throughout history, the natural human tendency has been to divide others mentally into Us and Them, and to apply this do-as-you-would-be-done-by principle only to the Us group. The history of improvements in morality, I realised, effectively consisted of pushes for increasing broadening of the group of people included in the Us group, and increasing realisation that that really ought to include all humans everywhere. I’d never thought of it in quite this way before; I was quite intrigued by the concept.)

This all seemed like an excellent working hypothesis to explain the universal moral code that Lewis believed could only be explained by the existence of some kind of deity. I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the term ‘working hypothesis’ at the time, but I did understand that my idea was something I needed to examine carefully for flaws before reaching any final conclusion as to whether Lewis or I was right about this one.

To be continued…


  1. says

    The other problem with the idea that there’s an external being that gives us this moral code is that that being appears to change its mind pretty often. Things we now consider evil (genocide, child rape, slavery) were part and parcel of life for a lot of human history. So, did god change her mind?

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I was also struck by the morality argument while I was a theist. It actually kept me being a theist for about a decade longer than I probably otherwise would have been. I was kind of a transcendentalist – I didn’t necessarily think of God as being a person, or having a personality, or “wanting” certain things – more like a magnetic field that kept everyone’s moral compasses pointing in the same direction.

    Two things overcame that idea for me. One of them was 9/11. Before then, I’d been able to convince myself that all the world’s major religions were basically in agreement about right and wrong. Of course #notallmuslims, but still, 9/11 showed that religion could lead fairly substantial groups of people to ideas of “good” that were very much at variance with what I believed. And as comment #1 above says, morality also changes over time within a culture.

    The other idea that changed my mind was discovering meme theory. Basically, that and altruism studies convinced me that there were compelling reasons why “good” behavior could evolve among societies competing militarily over resources – in other words, most pre-modern societies.

    I came up with this thought experiment: imagine that two tribes have settled on opposite ends of a lush, fertile valley. One of the tribes is what we think of as “evil” – the leader is the biggest bully, the weak (especially women and children) are treated as property and given no status, rights are given or taken away at the whim of the leader. The other has qualities we think of as “good” – stronger members of the tribe are told it’s their duty to protect weaker members, courage and self-sacrifice, especially on behalf of ones’ children, are held up as exemplary qualities, and leaders are told that their first goal should be to protect their people. Of course, the two tribes don’t get along, and low-intensity clashes between them go on for years.

    It seemed pretty obvious to me that, over a long period of time, the “good” culture would have an advantage over the “evil” culture. Warriors who are motivated by ideas of honor, family, and the nobility of self-sacrifice are going to fight a lot harder than warriors who believe that the only thing that matters is what’s personally good for them, or fear of what the Big Man is going to do to them if they run away. Probably even more important, the weaker members of society get a vote as well. Unless you keep them locked up somehow, women who are being mistreated are going to be perfectly capable of grabbing their kids in the middle of the night and sneaking away to someplace where they think they’re likely to be treated better.

    The idea that societies which believed in social cohesion had a built-in advantage over societies that didn’t completely explained Lewis’ dilemma to me, and abolished theism in my life once and for all.

  3. leerudolph says

    The only way that humans could have this kind of innate universal understanding would be if it came from some kind of external being who cares about our behaviour and designed us with this innate moral code.

    Any step in an argument that begins “The only way that…” is always suspect. Even assuming steps (1) and (2), an obvious alternative to “it came from some kind of external being” is “it evolved biologically”; someone who wishes to argue that “it evolved biologically” is much less unlikely, in this case, than “it came from some kind of external being”, and who (further) wishes me (for one) to take that argument seriously, is going to have to be very careful to show how this case differs relevantly from such other cases as the development of the human eye. (Nor are “it came from some kind of external being” and “it evolved biologically” the only alternatives, at least not on the narrowest views of “some kind of external being” and “evolved biologically”.)

  4. demonax says

    There exists a devastating critique of Lewis’s rhetoric:

    C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Revised and Updated) Paperback – July 17, 2007
    by John Beversluis
    Not much of Lewis survives the examination.

  5. says

    Things we now consider evil (genocide, child rape, slavery) were part and parcel of life for a lot of human history. So, did god change her mind?

    *Puts on robe and apologist hat*
    Obviously, this simply represents how humanity is gradually approaching the true morality of god. As we, collectively, improve our moral understanding, our inherent moral sense stands out more clearly. I.e. it’s not that god changes her mind, it’s just that we more accurately perceive the moral facts inherent in creation.

    Please refrain from questions like “why didn’t god make us better to being with?” or “doesn’t this imply that our current moral understanding might be wrong?” or even “how is this any fucking different from what would experience if there was no god at all?”

  6. gshelley says

    I read it as an atheists and was amazed anyone could take it seriously
    To me, it seemed to be saying “All people/societies have the same basic moral code apart from those that don’t and there isn’t any possible biological or societal benefit to having such rules, so God must have done it”
    His dismissal of the wide variety of what is considered moral, and of individuals who don’t follow such codes seemed totally unjustified

  7. DanDare2050 says

    Empathy seems to be an ev ok lved shortcut that allows us to avpid doing an expensive experiment.
    If you do someting that harms someone else they and or their associates may retaliate.
    Not provoking retaliation is a good thing.
    The next step up is mutual trust which allows both to prosper at a higher level than being independant.

  8. lanir says

    I think I had an easier time with the moral argument because the christians I knew and had to deal with regularly talked as though only their god had a path to morality. But most of them seemed to just mouth the words on Sundays and then have a separate and unrelated moral code in practice the rest of the week. I also found the thought-crime business of coveting the belongings of your neighbor unsupportable without some form of action to follow it up. And I didn’t even realize how cringe-worthy the coveting the neighbor’s wife thing was with it’s whole wives as chattel business, I just naively thought it was lopsided and they’d forgotten to include the wife’s thoughts and feelings. Sorry this focuses on the 10 commandments rather than morality in general but that’s the foot they chose to lead with. The golden rule didn’t suite them either because many of them obviously treated me differently than they would like to be treated and they thought nothing of it.

    C. S. Lewis had no real way to know this but since his death there have been experiments with animals that show they also have a sense of morality. He might have viewed it as supporting his ideas but christianity seems to like the idea of animals as unthinking, unfeeling brutes driven by nothing but instincts. So I look at it as an unresolvable problem for their viewpoints. The research is really quite interesting. Took me awhile to dig up a concise video talking about it but here goes:

    This says interesting things about in-group/out-group treatment in humans. Are we using our superior thinking capacity and communication abilities to undo our natural morality? The answer at times seems to be yes.

  9. Owlmirror says

    Regarding the argument from “universal morality”:

    1) In the bible, God commits and commands genocide.
    2) Religious commands, like keeping the Sabbath, are given the same weight as moral commands like not murdering.
    3) The bible commands the death penalty for violations of religious commands like keeping the Sabbath, and for actions relating to sexuality.

    Given the above, the God of the bible cannot possibly be the God of universal morality.

    Of course, that’s in addition to the point that to the extent that actions (or restrictions on actions) might be universally recognized as moral, a naturalistic explanation of common evolution makes more sense.

  10. Owlmirror says

    Oh, and given the above: If someone believes that the bible contains some sort of historical record of God’s actions, and that God’s actions (including the genocides and orders to commit genocide) can only be described as being “good”, then that person does not actually believe in an absolute morality in the first place, no matter what they may inconsistently say about the matter.

  11. Dave Kirby says

    This is just a variation of the GodDidIt argument:

    1. there exists something that I can’t think of an explanation for.

    2. therefore God Did It.

    This is deeply unconvincing, especially if you consider all the other things that used be explained by God but are now known to be the product of natural processes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.